Florida State at Pittsburgh Preview and Prediction

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State looks to ruin Pittsburgh's entrance to the ACC.

Our yearly, long national nightmare is over. College football is back and the Noles take on the Panthers in the final game of the inaugural weekend. Can FSU handle the rowdy road environment, and heavy thunderstorms under the lights of Heinz Field on Labor Day? With a freshman quarterback leading the way after an offseason of major roster and coaching turnover, it's going to be interesting.

8:00 | ESPN | Line: -10/49

v. Pittsburgh's Defense

Pitt has an experienced, strong defense. It wasn't as good as its 17th overall ranking in total yardage last year, since playing in the Big East has a way of inflating numbers, but this is a strong, veteran defense that doesn't make a lot of mistakes and blown assignments. They really excel at not allowing big plays, on the ground or through the air.

As it will every game this year, the game should start and end up front for Florida State. FSU will focus on pounding the ball between the tackles early and often with James Wilder Jr and Devonta Freeman with some Ryan Green sprinkled in. The loss of Mario Pender due to academic ineligibility will present some challenges, but should not change the overall gameplan. FSU returns experience and talent all along the line with little in the way of question marks.

While Pittsburgh returns good talent and experience along the defensive front, some positions have a lot to prove against the run. Pitt was much better against the pass than it was the run in 2012. The line is anchored by DT Aaron Donald, who had an incredible 18 tackles for loss last season. Donald is a smaller type DT but is very quick and will force FSU's interior line to communicate well and react quickly while be battered by a rowdy Pittsburgh crowd. The rest of the line held by NT Tyrone Ezell (experienced but not spectacular) and what amounts to question marks at both DE spots (Bryan Murphy and David Durham will likely start but Pitt could rotate through a cast of characters to find the right fit).

The Panther's 4-3 front will be rounded out with Shane Gordon, Bam Bradley and Anthony Gonzalez. While Anthony Gonzalez will get the start at SLB expect to see a lot of Todd Thomas. Thomas is certainly the star of the group and Pitt fans have to be thrilled he decided to come back after seemingly leaving the program due to a motivational ploy.

The most interesting action will occur with the TV watching audience mostly unaware. Pitt boasts an excellent secondary with two players (DB Jason Hendricks and SS K'Waun Williams) grabbing 10 combined INTs last year. While that INT rate isn't likely to continue they'll still present a strong challenge for FSU's aerial attack. Pitt's coaches believe three of its four starters are NFL players. FSU's receivers are good as well, however, and must be disciplined and intense in running their routes and fighting for the football.

The Noles should have success moving the ball on the ground, which opens up play action and roll outs for Winston. If FSU has to rely on Winston to drop back and win the game with his arm they could be in for a long night. That's not to say Winston isn't as advertised, we won't know that for at least a few more weeks, rather he's a quarterback seeing his first college football action in a hostile environment. That's not usually a recipe for success.

Patience will be the key. Trying to force the issue is not a recipe for success against PItt's defense. And that's a concern given Winston's over-aggressiveness in camp. Patience in the run game matters as well. With a freshman quarterback, coordinator Jimbo Fisher needs to be patient with the run game, and not become too pass-happy. Winston does not need to be throwing the football 35 times against Pitt. Of course, if Pitt decides to completely sell out against the run, putting eight and nine men in the box, Winston needs to be able to exploit the obvious single coverage.

Goals:

  • more than 5.0 yards a play before garbage time (300 yards on 60 plays, 350 yards on 70 plays)
  • No more than 1 turnover
  • 60% or greater TDs in the red zone

v. Pittsburgh's Offense

Pitt lost a lot from a good offense last year as they return a staring WR, a TE and two guards. Of course other players saw action, but when you have to replace seven players in your starting line up, you can't be too hopeful. Lucky for Pitt two of those returning players are great (WR Devin Street) to very good (TE JP Holtz).

Ryan Turnley (2nd team All Big East) is gone leaving Pitt looking for a new center. Combine that with FSU looking to blitz more than in years past and QB Tom Savage could be in for a rough Labor Day night. Making matters more difficult for Pitt is the fact that they will start a RS FR as left tackle (Adam Bisnowaty) and a converted DE at RT (T.J. Clemmings), and while FSU did this same basic thing a season ago with Cameron Erving, the results don't generally end up in the offense's favor. Pitt does return two guards (LG Cory King being the lone SR on the line) but wasn't exactly spectacular in run blocking in 2012.

Of course, 2012 was the first year in Paul Chryst's offense. Chryst is an excellent offensive coach, and the second year is generally the year teams make a big leap under a new coaching staff.

Running backs Isaac Bennett, Malcolm Crockett and James Conner will have their names called a ton against FSU and for the rest of the season. Bennett will likely get the start but has been battling injury and practice reports have been very positive for Conner. Pitt will likely have trouble running inside against FSU's loaded interior line but could find success outside because of FSU's lack of depth and experience at DE. The Noles will look to counter this threat with a 5-2 lineup that can quickly be switched to a 4-3, 4-2-5 or 3-4 because of personnel groupings.

Way back in 2009 Tom Savage had a very good year starting for Rutgers as a freshman. Unfortunately poor play and an injury found him on the sidelines in 2010. He transferred to Arizona in 2011 but with Rich Rodriguez heading up the team in 2012, his skillset did not fit, and he headed up to Pitt and won the starting job for 2013. While Savage is certainly experienced, he hasn't thrown a pass in a college game since 2010 and has to throw into the teeth of FSU's very deep secondary. Lucky for Savage he can target players like Street, TE Manasseh Garner and promising freshman Tyler Boyd.

Pitt will likely mix play action with draws, screens and quick hitters to take advantage of FSU's aggressiveness. The Noles need to shut down Pitt's run to win but shouldn't have too much trouble doing so. Pitt is not likely to sustain many drives against FSU, but could catch FSU in poorly run blitzes (new defense) or busted coverages, and bust a few big plays. Expect FSU to keep things a bit more vanilla as the defense has had to learn a completely new (and more complicated) defense and Pitt will probably not have a very good offense this year.

If FSU is able to shut down Pitt's running game, the key will become the Panthers' ability to throw the football on first down. If Savage is able to get completions on first down, Pitt may be able to keep FSU's defense off balance.

It's a game of leverage. No team loves being in second and 7+ or third and 5+, but some teams are better equipped to handle those situations. Pitt is probably not one of those teams. FSU must do a good job on early downs so that it can feast on passing downs.

Goals:

  • less than 4.3 yards/play before garbage time (260 on 60 plays, 300 on 70)
  • Force 2 turnovers
  • 50% or less TDs in the red zone

Special Teams

FSU could certainly improve its chances on kick offs and punt returns. Given the expected rainy conditions, it will be interesting to see if Florida State will try to kick the ball high and short of the goal line, like Dustin Hopkins did last year. Kicker Roberto Aguayo must replace Dustin Hopkins, but if anybody can it's certainly Aguayo. He showed in the spring game that he is certainly capable (4 for 5 with a miss at 47 yards but a make at 58) but kicking during practice and in a real game are two different things. Hopefully for Aguayo, the results will be the same.

If there's anybody that knows what Aguayo will go through this year it's punter Cason Beatty. In 2012, Beatty had the unenviable task of taking over for Shawn Powell and struggled. While Beatty did a decent job of pinning opponents inside the 20 when FSU was close, he often misfired when he had the opportunity to boom his punts. He showed flashes of a good leg, but shanks, most notably against NC State and Miami, really put a dampener on his season. Has Beatty improved this year? We'll see. In a game that is likely to be ugly and not very high scoring, field position will be extremely important. Beatty needs to step up.

Senor punter Matt Yoklic returns for Pitt and he's a good punter. Nothing particularly splashy, but a solid kicker. FSU could have chances to return the ball if they can hold onto it, something they struggled with last year. Kenny Shaw won the job late last year and will continue to return punts in 2012. While he's not as explosive as Rashad Greene, he does a good job of holding onto the ball. Pitt is also replacing its place kicker but with the unfortunately named Chris Blewitt. The end.

Prediction

I can see this game going any which way. The wet track hurts the faster team, and evens the playing field a bit. This Pitt team, like seemingly every Pitt team, could easily beat FSU and then lose its next game to New Mexico. There's enough talent to cause teams fits and enough experience to take advantage of FSU's mistakes. Combine that with the fact that FSU is running a new defense and starting a new QB away from home on a nationally televised night game, and anything is possible. However, I do think FSU will be able to make enough plays on defense and run the ball effectively enough on offense to wear down Pitt late.

Florida State 27, Pittsburgh 14 | Chance of winning: 80%

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